Keeping up a cheery front while sinking in the quicksand of life is the sardonic premise of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, recently presented by Four Humours outside the Shadowbox Theatre. One possibly apocryphal explanation of why Beckett wrote the piece is that his wife complained about his depressing plays. If so, this is a vitriolic response.
It's pure Beckett. Winnie (the fascinating Mary Pauley) sits buried to the waist in a huge sand pile. Her desperate attempts to remain optimistic in this symbolic entombment is the driving force of the play. Winnie is terrified she will be deserted by husband Willy (Michael Martin) even though he is barely present anyway. He lurks around, mostly sleeping and hiding in his cave. If Happy Days is a grim absurdist metaphor for human existence, the endless friction between Willy and Winnie might be seen as a grim absurdist metaphor for marriage.
Winnie wears a summer frock and although she is immobilized, she has accoutrements — a white parasol and a large purse. The parasol is significant because it can be manipulated and because the sun is a relentless enemy in the dry, barren world of the play.
Happy Days begins with "the bell for waking" (the day ends with "the bell for sleep"). To start the day, Winnie takes a toothbrush out of her bag and brushes. She notices an inscription on the toothbrush handle: "Fully guaranteed, genuine pure ... " She can't read the final words, but she doesn't give up. At unexpected moments, she tries again and again — creating an insane but hilarious running gag.
Winnie's main task is to somehow fill her day with endless chatter and simple chores, like putting on makeup, combing her hair and staying positive about life.
One of the playthings she takes out of her bag, however, is a pistol — and she leaves it out. If she gives up all hope, she has an exit at hand.
But things will never come to such a pass as long as Willy can hear her. He not only hears her, he torments her with risque remarks.
In the second act, Winnie is buried up to her neck. So the gun, while visible, can no longer be grabbed — except perhaps by Willy. Beckett's idea of hell is simpler and more abstract than Dante's Divine Comedy, but no less hellish.
Director Michael Martin staged the play outdoors, which made it harder to focus on the static piece, but actress Pauley deserves a hearty congratulations for an unforced, bravura turn in the leading role. — Dalt Wonk